Blog #19
Blog #19: Genre of the week

Gospel music is a form of African American religious music. At some Christian church services, people sing gospel music as a part of the preacher’s sermon. The word gospel means “good news,” and gospel songs often praise God or Jesus. Many gospel songs also describe struggles and hard times.

Small groups of singers, choirs, and soloists (single singers) perform gospel music. Singers are usually very emotional and expressive. A wide range of instruments—for example, organ, guitars, banjos, or brass instruments—may provide background music.

Many gospel songs have parts known as call and response. In this type of singing, the leader sings a phrase and then the group responds with a repeated line.

Development of Gospel

Gospel music as we know it began in the 1930's but the roots can be seen much earlier in the southern states. African American communities in the late 19th century would come together in their churches to give praise and sing poignant spirituals and hymns. The power of the message and rhythm of the music would often come out through the hand-clapping and foot-stomping still seen in churches to this day. Before that, those spirituals were an important part of slave culture. Groups of slaves would sing together as they worked on plantations, often choosing old songs connected to their faith. For some, this was little more than a way to feel closer to God during hardship. For others, the communal songs and harmonies would create bonds between workers. There was also the use of song as a means of covert communication.

African American composers continued using biblical themes and stories of black history in the time of emancipation and beyond. The development of gospel music was an evolution of this style as African American communities moved into cities and more urban societies at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a continuation of their connection between music and faith. The gospel songs carried on into the new churches of these northern cities.


There were four distinct styles of gospel music that developed in the golden age of gospel from the 1930's:

Traditional gospel took the songs and hymns and gave them to a larger choir.  It followed the more minimalist approach that was expected when the community came together in song.

Contemporary gospel changed this and allowed solo artists to come forward and tell their stories on their own.

Quartet styles saw groups of vocalists sing these songs in tighter harmonies something that would later emerge in other musical styles.

Praise and worship style is the one that many outsiders immediately think of when they imagine gospel choirs.  This blend of styles brings together the choir, soloist, and the response of the congregation.


Modern gospel music has adapted further to cater to a young audience. Some of the vocal work and harmonies are more complex and the arrangements have diverted from the old traditions. Yet, there are plenty of these original signature elements. If we take a closer look at contemporary artists more generally, and the influence of gospel on R&B and blues music, we see little hints of the African American tradition in all kinds of works across various genres. 

When we consider the history of gospel music in America, we have to also look at urban contemporary gospel. It is not uncommon for artists with strong religious beliefs to turn to secular musical forms to express themselves. Christian rock bands are an important outlet for certain communities that don't always feel they are represented in modern music. Urban contemporary gospel did just that for African American Christians of a younger demographic. This was chart-friendly, popular music with a blend of R&B styles and gospel messages. The genre reached a wider audience because it was so closely linked to urban contemporary music. Artists could use similar beats and melodies to adapt the lyrics to offer more religious themes.


Mahalia Jackson
"How I got over" by Mahalia Jackson

Kirk Franklin
"Love Theory" by Kirk Franklin

Donnie McClurkin
"Not yet" by Donnie McClurkin

Click this link to respond to the questions below

Why do you think this music became so popular to so many people?

When you listen to the listening examples, do any of them make you think of other genres that might have used aspects of gospel?